Colin Mackenzie, first Surveyor-General of India, is well known for his monumental work that laid the foundation for the collection, cataloguing, preservation and publication of many ancient Indian documents and  literatures. What is, however, little known is that Mackenzie in his endeavours depended heavily on one man, Kavelli Venkata Boria, a Telugu Brahmin who followed Mackenzie like a shadow from 1796 till his demise in 1803 at the age of 26.

In order to know who Kavelli Venkata Boria was, we have to go back to the mid 1780s. The British East India Company had started to realise the need for surveys on various aspects of their expanding boundaries in the subcontinent. Accordingly, Governor-general Lord Wellesley set up three separate survey teams headed by Francis Buchanan Hamilton (land & land records), Colin Mackenzie (physics & mathematics) and Benjamin Heyne (botanical & geological specimens). The parameters were expanded to include the location and description of old buildings, ruins, sites of ancient settlements, collection of family histories and genealogies, as well as the description of local customs and laws thought to be antique or unusual.

A few years later, realising Mackenzie’s talent, the company placed him in independent charge of all three categories. This was the beginning of a seminal work, culminating in the publication of survey reports from the Asiatic Society, Calcutta.

Boria at 20 had studied and mastered Sanskrit, Persian, Hindustani, and English, in addition to Tamil and Telugu. Boria was also a storehouse of information on the literary treasures in each language. This enabled Mackenzie to explore the ancient troves in Tamil, Telugu and Sanskrit.

It was sheer chance that Mackenzie came across this young genius immediately after his return from Ceylon. Mackenzie said his meeting and subsequent association with Venkata Boria in 1796 enabled him to enter “the portal of Indian knowledge”. Boria was 20 when Mackenzie took him on as an interpreter, and later to direct a growing staff of Indians, to be employed for the next 21 years travelling throughout the south, collecting texts, inscriptions, artifacts and all kinds of historical and sociological information. Some of this work was done with official patronage as an adjunct to Mackenzie’s topographical surveying and mapmaking. He eventually became Surveyor-General.

But that came much later. Mackenzie had no dearth of obstacles, the worst being India’s diversity in language. It was here that Boria with his lingual abilities helped Mackenzie first get acquainted with Indian languages and then to understand the nuances of each one in terms of grammar and syntax. Boria at 20 had studied and mastered Sanskrit, Persian, Hindustani, and English, in addition to Tamil and Telugu. At 16 he got his first job as writer and interpreter with the British. Boria was also a storehouse of information on the literary treasures in each of these languages. This enabled Mackenzie to explore the ancient literary troves especially in Tamil, Telugu and Sanskrit. In years to come, with generous support from the Asiatic Society, Mackenzie would go on to oversee the translation and publication of many priceless literary works. But by then Kavelli Venkata Boria had left this world for ever.

Boria, according to his brother Kavelli Venkata Ramaswami, wrote poems in Sanskrit and Telugu, including a poetical account of the fall of Seringapatam (Srirangapatna).

Boria was a brilliant, hyperactive individual who found this new work tremendously exciting. Until his death in 1803 he accompanied Mackenzie, recording temple inscriptions, deciphering obsolete scripts, and translating books, manuscripts and documents, often right on the spot. Records show that it was Boria who collected and collated information about ancient Hindu temple-sites or Buddhist/Jain religious structures and prepared a detailed tour programme which, after being approved by Mackenzie, was placed before the East India Company’s directors for requisite grants.

In addition Boria, according to his brother Kavelli Venkata Ramaswami, wrote poems in Sanskrit and Telugu, including a poetical account of the fall of Seringapatam (Srirangapatna). Mackenzie’s ambition was to compile the source material for a history of south India. The Mysore Survey took nearly 10 years. Mackenzie summarised the results of this work: The discovery of Jain religion and philosophy, and its distinction from that of Buddha, the different ancient sects in this country, their subdivisions, the Lingavanta, Saivam and Pandaram Matts. The nature and use of the Sassanams, and inscriptions on stone and copper, and their utility in throwing light on the important subject of Hindu tenures, confirmed by upwards of 3,000 authentic inscriptions collected since 1800. Each of these core survey works which ultimately opened the floodgates of historical exploration and research were in every sense the laying of an elaborate foundation for an understanding India’s cultural heritage by the European elite in general and the British in particular.  

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Colin Mackenzie with his Indian assistants in a painting by Thomas Hickey, circa 1816. Luchmiah is second from left behind Mackenzie.

The design and nature of the monumental stones and trophies found in various parts of the country from Cape Comorin to Delhi, called Virakal and Maastikal, which illustrate the ancient customs of early inhabitants, and perhaps of early western nations, sepulchral tombs, mounds, and barrows of the early tribes, similar to those found throughout the continent of Asia and of Europe, illustrated by drawings, and various other notices of antiquities and institutions had for long been overlooked.

Mackenzie proceeded with much of the staff who had worked with him in Madras. They were to be engaged in trying to organise the vast amount of materials collected in the previous 20 years.

Mackenzie’s survey from 1800 to 1810 brought all this into the public domain for the first time. After a brief stint as chief engineer for the expedition, he was sent to Java where he remained until 1813, and where along with his military duties he initiated a survey similar to that being carried out in south India. Mackenzie returned to his post as surveyor of Madras and in 1815, somewhat against his wishes, was transferred to Calcutta as Surveyor-General of India. But this enabled him to travel widely and explore much of north India.

After his unexpected and somewhat inconvenient transfer to Calcutta, an unwilling Mackenzie proceeded with much of the staff who had worked with him in Madras. They were to be engaged in trying to organise the vast amount of materials collected in the previous 20 years. But in the absence of his chief interpreter Boria, there was some difficulty in dealing with the volume of material. After Mackenzie’s death in 1821, this staff was to be placed in the charge of H. H. Wilson who had been successful in having the Company establish an antiquarian department in Calcutta.

The office had four translators, four pandits, a maulvi, and several copyists and peons. Wilson’s primary interests were in Sanskrit and Persian, which he viewed as “the chief vehicle of the modern history of India.” He had no knowledge of and little interest in the languages and history of south India. Wilson had little interest in maintaining Mackenzie’s staff, except as they were well versed with Sanskrit and Persian.

Meanwhile, going back to Mackenzie, East India Company directors were long interested in Mackenzie’s efforts to collect the materials for a true history of south India. In 1810 they expressed their admiration for the zeal with which he had carried out his statistical work and his “enquiries into the history, the religion and antiquities of the country”. They congratulated Mackenzie for providing the basis on which a real history and chronology of south India could be written, dispelling the idea that “Hindoos possess few authentic records”.

They encouraged him to “digest and improve the materials” he had collected and urged him to forward them for deposit in the company’s museum. They also asked for an accounting of personal funds expended so that he might be recompensed. It appears Mackenzie never supplied the accounting. In 1823 Palmer & Company, executors of Mackenzie’s estate submitted a detailed accounting of his expenditures in assembling his collection, amounting to ₹61,452. They said the accounting was based on scattered records and the figure was undoubtedly an underestimate. They asked that the estate be paid ₹100,000, a figure the governor-general agreed to, but which the court of directors rejected. Eventually, though, the court of directors did agree to purchase the whole of the collection from Mackenzie’s widow for £10,000. 

Wilson had little knowledge of the languages involved and seems to have dismissed most of Mackenzie’s staff but undertook the task of organising and publishing a catalogue of the papers with excerpts. It appeared in two volumes of over 800 pages in Calcutta in 1828. He basically followed Mackenzie’s classification of the materials, which included 1,568 manuscripts in 13 languages in 19 scripts, which he described as dealing with “Literature.” There were 264 volumes of what Mackenzie labeled “Local Tracts”; these were primarily based on oral accounts Mackenzie’s assistants had collected and related to the history of particular temples, kingdoms, families, and castes. There were 77 volumes of copies of inscriptions recorded from temples, copper plates and various grants, 75 volumes of translations, 79 plans, 2,630 drawings, 6,218 coins, 106 images, and 40 antiquities.

Our essay, as the title suggests, is however not so much about Colin Mackenzie but his assistant Kavelli Venkata Boria. In 1797 Mackenzie was carrying out a topographic survey in Guntur district when he heard about the discovery of some antiquities in a small town, Amresvarem, on the banks of the Krishna River. He sent his trustworthy guide Boria along with some Brahmans and two sepoys. They were to make inquiries and to conciliate the inhabitants.

On Mackenzie’s arrival Boria reported that there was some apprehension at the approach of the British and their sepoys, but Mackenzie reassured the inhabitants that they had only come to look at the recently discovered ruins being excavated by a local raja who was using some of the materials for a temple and his house. Mackenzie found a long circular trench 10 feet wide and 12 feet deep, which exposed a mass of masonry, and some slabs, some with bas reliefs on them. It was reported that some statues had been uncovered and taken into the newly built temple.

Boria not only played the role of interpreter for Mackenzie in his interactions with locals but also contributed  insights on the significance of documents like land deeds and inscriptions.  Boria had a profound influence on Mackenzie’s understanding of Indian culture and religion.

One of Mackenzie’s delineators, Sydenham, promptly drew a number of sketches of the figures. Mackenzie described seeing a number of lingams on the bas reliefs. On the mud wall of the temple he found a sculpture of “an attack or an escalade of a fortified place”. The residents of the town believed the remains were built by Jains. Mackenzie was generally mystified by the appearance of figures in the fragments he saw.

It was not until almost twenty years later, in 1816, that he returned to investigate the Amaravati tope. This time he had a full team, including four or five trained delineators, presumably the “country born” graduates of the Madras Observatory and Surveying School established by Michael Topping in 1794. Mackenzie spent four or five months at the site and his assistants worked through 1817, producing “careful plans of the buildings and maps of the surrounding country, together with 80 very carefully finished drawings of the sculptures.” James Fergusson stated that these drawings were unsurpassed “for accuracy and beauty of finish”. It shows the central role Boria played in the preliminary findings and reporting for Mackenzie who subsequently, in discussion with Boria’s first-hand knowledge of the ground situation, made the next elaborate plan.

In 1797, Mackenzie visited Madikeri and found the ruins of a Jain temple and had written a detailed note on the Jains based on interviews with local Jains and with extensive material contributions from Boria. It was Boria who not only played the role of interpreter for Mackenzie in his extensive interactions with locals but also contributed interesting insights on the religious and cultural significance of written documents like land deeds and inscriptions. In other words Boria had a profound influence on Mackenzie’s understanding of ancient Indian culture and religion.

He accompanied Mackenzie in the follow-ups as a valuable negotiator in case of occasional obduracy from local bodies or arrogant chieftains. Perhaps the most crucial role of all played by Boria was when the Mackenzie team was back at office. He oversaw the small office staff in identifying, listing & marking the huge volume of collected materials according to Mackenzie’s instructions and further helped him in the final cataloguing of the same. But Boria’s job did not end there.

After Boria’s death Mackenzie continued his reliance on the family by keeping his brother Kavelli Venkata Luchmiah as chief assistant.

Mackenzie depended almost entirely upon him for the translation of written material like land and other records as well as literary works from the local language to English. Certainly, Mackenzie had the final say in editing all content but the preliminary work rested upon the shoulders of this young man upon whom Mackenzie reposed huge faith and confidence, a sentiment Boria returned.

If Mackenzie’s works show that he was tremendously impressed with the skill of the mysterious artists who carved with taste and elegance or the exquisite sculptures of human figures, “well executed in their proportions” it was Boria who was the original spotter of any site dedicated to worship. After inspection Mackenzie made a detailed noting of all salient features, but of what kind he did not know. It was Boria’s knowledge he had to depend upon for exact identification.

After Boria’s death Mackenzie continued his reliance on the family by keeping his younger brother Kavelli Venkata Luchmiah as chief assistant. Luchmiah’s original monthly reports for 1804 provide an excellent account of how the varied materials were obtained. The reports are in Luchmiah’s handwriting, in English, which although ungrammatical is clear and understandable. In the reports, he describes where he and the other collectors have gone and who they talked with. Sometimes he provides brief summaries of the content of the conversations. There are frequent references to books bought and their prices.

He also forwards Mackenzie translations being done in various languages. He comments on sources of information which he is developing. He has heard about a history of a particular zamindari; he writes to the vakil who has the account, expressing his desire to meet him. Luchmiah reports that he is received with respect by the vakil who knows one of his relations. At his first meeting, which lasts three to four hours, the vakil discusses astrology, and Luchmiah does not raise the question of obtaining a copy of the history but assures Mackenzie that during his next visit he will undoubtedly obtain the copy they are seeking. Luchmiah then follows up with a visit to the astrologer in Madras the vakil thinks is such an expert. Having heard from his informant that the astrologer has a large collection of texts which have accounts of the lives of his clients, Luchmiah decides to see him “and try his skill”.

Mackenzie is revered as a pioneer in the field of oriental research and his collections have found their way into several footnotes. The authenticity of the information contained in them has been doubted, however, not without reason. His collections are generally based on second-hand traditions and unverified reports. But they have their place in historical research in India. Their testimony may be used as circumstantial evidence to supplement results from other sources and to furnish further details on the subject. Exaggerated notions on the value of the Mackenzie collection as containing original and authentic material are not justified.

However, we must bear it in mind that history affords almost the only means that exist for studying any conclusion we may arrive at, and is a measure of the greatness or decay of the dynasties that ruled that country in ancient times. It is also important because architecture in India is still a living art. The study of Indian antiquities and the development of the study of natural history in India in the 18th and early 19th century through collections of texts, paintings, sculptures, artifacts, and botanical and zoological specimens were mostly the result of individual and personal efforts. Mackenzie was not just one of them but the leading light. The fact that his efforts rested on the painstaking work of an equally brilliant Indian should make us proud even today.